What Customer Service Will Do for Your Brand and What It Cannot

by Vince Skolny via @GrowDemand

On the one hand, too many businesses ignore, deemphasize, or outright pooh-pooh customer service and its role in marketing. On the other, too many of its advocates and practitioners venerate it as the anodyne for all that ails business.

I am a fierce advocate and a committed practitioner, but customer service is neither of those things.

What Customer Service Is… and Is Not

It is helpful to put customer service in its place, defining exactly what it is and exactly where it belongs in the Branding Process. Customer service is:

  1. The interaction with customers surrounding their buying process.
  2. The follow up to the buying process including installation, delivery, installation, training, tech support, and other necessary outcomes of a converting a potential loyal customer into a paying customer.
  3. The interaction with customers if something goes wrong with the sale, from simple buyer’s remorse to product failure (whether real or perceived).

That’s it.

Customer service is not — as it is too often portrayed — the comprehensive dealing with a customer, much less the warped granting of every whim and wish of every customer, not matter how valid or how profitable. Customer service is meeting (and then exceeding) reasonable demands made by reasonable people surrounding the purchase of your product.

We will discuss specifically the problems obsequious customer service creates in two weeks. For now, let it be said that customer service is the reasonable and stipulated, facilitation of the sales process, follow up to it, and dealing with problems arising from it.

That’s it.

What Customer Service Cannot Do

Understanding what customer service is allows to understand what customer service cannot do. It is a marketing bullet for sure, but when we imagine it is the magic bullet (much less that it is marketing; that’s ridiculous, but I have seen it bandied about.) to solve all of our competitive woes, we are expecting more than it can ever deliver.

Remember that I am a fierce advocate and committed customer service practitioner. I am defending it, not castigating it, but it first must be defended from its overzealous believers before it can be defended to the C-suite. Nothing can perform as promised when it is purported to do more than it is capable. I am defending it from those impossible expectations, created by some of its advocates, which lead to pooh-poohing in the C-suite.

There are at least three limits to what customer service can accomplish:

  • Customer service cannot make up for poor products or other sorts of poor performance: It differentiates from the baseline of all other things being equal, but it does not remedy a deficient baseline. It does not overcome deficiencies that make your competition superior marketers to you.

But even with all things being equal, customer service is not something customers will necessarily pay for:

  • The more value your customers derive from your product away from you, the less they will be willing to pay for even outstanding service. For example, big screen TVs. Unlike restaurants, amusement parks, and gym memberships, the value of a tv is in owning it, not using or consuming it in your presence. Nor does it require much (if any) contact with you after the sale. That type of product minimizes the value of service as a differentiation for which people will pay more.
  • Many people simply won’t pay for even the best customer service. They are the price-alone shoppers who value the bottom line, not experience or value in use. In general, the less expensive your product category, the less interested your customers will be in cost and value (as opposed to price) and the harder you will have to work to differentiate via customer service. . . if you can do it at all.

When customer service is positioned as something for which customers will ipso facto pay a premium or that can overcome other poor organizational performance, those claims will prove false.

Of course, none of that mitigates customer service’s real marketing value, it simply reinforces a foundational point of marketing: Your customers don’t pay for what you’re proud of. Your customers pay for what they prefer.

The Vital Role of Customer Service in the Branding Process

The best way to think of customer service is as the experiential extension of your product. Not of your entire company. Just as a differentiated and reliable product is the baseline for your brand experiences, customer service provides those experiences that convert potential loyal customers into paying customers. And frequently, whether in full or in part, it plays a vital role in transforming those paying customers into repeat customers.

Make no mistake: Loyalty is impossible without differentiated, reliable customer service. As we noted, everything is a brand experience but not equally so: Note well that the issue I took with Fed Ex in that article was a customer service issue.

No experience is as vital to your brand as the experience surrounding the experience as a paying customer.

Customer service’s job is providing that fundamental and essential brand experience. We’ll talk about that next week. In the meantime, do you have questions or comments about using customer service to differentiate your brand? Feel free to comment right here or to tweet at me.

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